Critics accuse the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of attempting to silence media through violence and coercion, while the recent arrests of three journalists for "defaming" a monk-turned-chief minister triggered public outrage.
NEW DELHI — On June 8, two police officers in plain clothes knocked on the door of a New Delhi-based freelance journalist Prashant Kanojia and whisked him away.
The incident left his wife petrified as the police did not tell her anything.
“I was so shocked that I could not even understand what they were up to,” Kanojia's wife Jagisha Arora told TRT World.
“They picked him up at around 12.30pm, and for the whole day I remained clueless regarding his whereabouts. Only at 10.45pm, I got a call. The caller identified himself as the SHO (Station House Officer) and gave the phone to Prashant (Kanojia), who told me that he was in Lucknow and had been remanded to police custody for two days.”
A day before his detention, Kanojia had shared a video on social media, in which a woman claimed to be in a relationship with Uttar Pradesh state's Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a monk sworn to celibacy. The woman said she had been talking to Adityanath through "video conferencing" for over a year and now wanted to spend her life with the chief minister.
Kanojia's Twitter post did not go down well with Adityanath, a Hindu nationalist leader who's facing criminal charges of attempted murder, defiling a place of worship and inciting riots in Uttar Pradesh. The Adityanath-led government in Uttar Pradesh charged Kanojia with defamation.
An alumnus of the Delhi-based Indian Institute of Mass Communications, Kanojia has worked with India's leading publications The Indian Express and The Wire.
On June 11, the Supreme Court ordered the "immediate release" of Kanojia.
His detention is reflective of a disturbing trend in India. Soon after Kanojia was picked up from New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh police detained two more journalists, Ishita Singh, head of Noida-based TV news channel Nation Live, and her editor Anuj Shukla.
India's journalistic fraternity protested the arrests, criticising the Uttar Pradesh government for making efforts to "intimidate the press and stifle freedom of expression".
“Uttar Pradesh police’s action against these three journalists is clear case of administrative overreach,” said the Press Club of India President Anant Bagaitkar. “The criminal provisions of the defamation law should be taken off the statute books given their repeated use against journalists.”
The Editors’ Guild of India (EGI) called the arrests “high handed” and “an authoritarian misuse of law”, repeating their demand that India's defamation law should be decriminalised.
The Network of Women in Media (NWM) also came out in support of the arrested journalists and sought their immediate release. “The fact that the three were picked up on a weekend when courts are shut and the procedure to get bail becomes difficult, is a clear indicator that the police’s intention is to harass them further, thereby denying them access to justice,” the NWM statement read.
“The above arrests are a serious clampdown on not just their fundamental rights but also the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and expression. They are also an indicator that the UP government is intolerant of dissent and selective in addressing crimes.”
The day Kanojia and other two journalists were detained, unknown gunmen fired shots on a TV crew in New Delhi. They were on their way to cover a local crime story.
These back-to-back incidents came within a fortnight of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) obtaining a sizeable mandate in the recently concluded general elections, in which Narendra Modi was re-elected as the prime minister.
Press freedom in India has deteriorated in the last five years of BJP rule.
According to the World Press Freedom Index, India ranks 138th out of 180 countries in 2018, just one place ahead of Pakistan, and has become the nation with the maximum number of murders of journalists under police investigation.
In 2017 alone, the International Press Institute recorded the targeted killings of 12 Indian journalists.
Besides the looming threat of being murdered, Indian journalists also face coordinated online harassment if they speak critically of the government. In another form of assault on press freedom, many TV anchors have been removed from prime time debates and editors and correspondents who do not propagate the ruling party's political views are either being disempowered in their editorial ranks or simply fired.
Fake news or distorted news that suits the ruling party’s propaganda has been dominating the news cycle ever since Modi came into power in 2014.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the media watchdog that prepares the index annually: “Attacks against journalists by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi increased in the run-up to general elections in the spring of 2019. Those who espouse Hindutva, the ideology that gave rise to Hindu nationalism, are trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate.”
The latest instances of arrests and attacks are not only further links in this chain but an indicator of worse days to come.